T'Challa woke before the sun rose. He slung his legs over the side of his bed and held a hand to his torso, across his ribs. He couldn't shake the emptiness he felt there, the void that pulled at him. It made him almost nauseous, this silent part of him.
He dressed and slipped out of the palace, taking a speeder out to the laboratory. He watched the sun rise, the sky lightening, turning purple and pink, fading out of darkness.
The lab was mostly empty in the early morning hours, the few people he passed looking more like his early morning was their late night, and only acknowledged him briefly.
T'Challa made his way into the cryogenics room and found himself a desk chair, with wheels. He rolled close to the chamber, Barnes' face peaceful and sleeping through the glass.
"I don't know how I can feel so prepared to be king,after everything that was done to keep it. How I am confident to lead and protect my people and yet, I am... unprepared for this."
T'Challa knew he would get no response, but Barnes' face was comforting nonetheless. It was easy to talk, but not be expected to engage. He kept his hands clasped together, to resist the urge to reach through the glass, if only his hand could phase through it, and touch Barnes. T'Challa's breathing shuddered at the thought of it.
He lost track of time as he sat there, mostly in a contemplative silence, with only the soft white noise of the machines keeping Barnes alive and protected.
T'Challa nearly jumped out of his skin. He brought his hand to his chest to temper his breathing. "Shuri. What time is it?"
"Seven-thirty." She laughed at him. "What are you doing here?"
"I..." There was no exterior reason for him to come to the lab in the wake of dawn to sit in meditation in front of this particular chamber. He had done the right thing, he was sure of it, and yet as Shuri's smile faded, he felt a sense of shame wash over him.
Shuri stared at him with wide eyes. "Brother, what did you do?"
T'Challa bowed his head. "When we were bringing Sergeant Barnes to Wakanda, it became clear that his internal injuries were more severe than we had originally thought. He became quite pale and his pulse was slowing. I did the only thing I could think of to do: I cycled through some of my life force to him."
It was only by the power of the Black Panther he could even do such a thing. He had known it was possible, but hadn't even been sure how to go about it. When he had placed his hand on Barnes' chest, the magic of the heart-shaped herb running through his veins took his desire and forced his soul into Barnes' body. It cycled through the both of them, souls mingling together until T'Challa could feel the weakness in Barnes' body in his own, and the strength he had provided bringing some of the color back into Barnes' cheeks.
"T'Challa," Shuri said with such sharpness that it made him jerk his head up at her, "do you know what you have done?"
"I saved his life." T'Challa replied. "After all of the death and the destruction, I could not stand by and watch another person die when I could have saved him. When I held some of the responsibility for why he was there."
"And in doing so, you merged your soul with his," Shuri said. Her eyes were fiery as she moved closer to him, slowly and predatory, like the spirit of Bast herself had taken hold of her. "Do you even understand what this man has been through? He has spent seventy years with other people's voices rattling around inside his head and now you've gone and added your own."
"Would you rather he be dead? T'Challa asked, as indignation rose up in his chest. "I saved his life."
"At what cost? I cannot undo what you have done. You may have kept him alive, and there is no telling that you did, as his body can repair faster than yours, but it was something else done to him against his will. You cannot stay here. You have to leave and you can't come back."
T'Challa rose from his chair. "What?"
Shuri sighed. "As long as he is in my lab, under my care, you are not to see him. He will need space and time to learn what his own free will is again. Having the man he is bonded to around will only make that harder. Once I've done my work, the work you trusted me to do, then he can make his choices."
As king, he could overrule her, but as a brother who knew the stubborn set of her jaw that she would make his life hell for it. Besides, she was right. He had trusted her with this. He knew that if anyone could help Barnes, it was her, and if she needed him out of the way, that's what he should do.
"Let me know when you wake him," T'Challa said, walking toward the door.
"You'll know," Shuri replied.
Days faded into weeks, and T'Challa did not risk Shuri's wrath. He stayed away from the lab. He busied himself with his duties as king and as the Black Panther. There were meetings with international diplomats and council sessions that lasted hours as they prepared and defined what opening up Wakanda would mean.
No countless hours of work could quite fill the void buried deep in T'Challa's chest. He could constantly feel the cold of Barnes' sleep. It curled around his muscles, tightening around his heart. Barnes was so close to him, and yet as he stayed under, he pulled T'Challa down with him.
It was in the middle of the day when T'Challa, accompanied by Okoye, was walking down the hall toward the throne room in anticipation of another meeting with the tribal leaders.
"The Border Tribe has concerns," Okoye said.
"I don't know why they worry so much. The duties of the Border Patrol will not change even in the—"
T'Challa's word cut off as warmth spread through him. He doubled over, one knee hitting the floor as he held himself up off the ground with his palms. A searing pleasure burned across his skin, and the void inside of him filled. He was no longer cut off from the missing part of his soul. Barnes was awake.
"My king!" Okoye knelt next to him with a hand on his back. "Are you ill?"
"No, no," T'Challa said as he sat up. He wasn't quite ready to stand, his body quivering with the new sensation of heat and pulse. "I just... I need a minute."
Okoye looked reluctant to leave his side, but she pulled away. Her eyes narrowed slightly. "I will stand over there. Where I can see you."
He chuckled. "Thank you."
T'Challa gathered his bearings, taking a few deep breaths. He concentrated on his lungs filling with air and releasing. He had forgotten what being whole felt like, and part of that was wrapped up in another person miles away. He swallowed down the urge to cancel his meeting, to go out to the lab. That was not part of the agreement he had made with Shuri (or what Shuri had commanded of him, if getting into details). He had to wait for Barnes to come to him.
But as his blood ran hot for the first time in weeks, he was confident that Barnes would find him.
In the moments of being truly honest with himself, T'Challa was sure that he and Barnes would be having their conversation within days, but there was no sign of him.
After weeks of saying nothing, T'Challa could no longer resist, and asked Shuri, "How is he doing?"
Her mouth pulled into a disapproving frown, but her features softened just as quickly. "He's progressing well. Brother, I—I owe you an apology. I never meant to say that you shouldn't have done something. Of course you should have, of course... you never intended for it to be a violation. And it's not, it's... I don't even know what it is. I can't fully comprehend it, but I only ever wanted him to have choices."
"He still does," T'Challa said.
Shuri tilted her head to the side and studied T'Challa's face. "Do you?"
It shouldn't have left him winded, but it did. His mind had constantly gone back to Barnes. He had barely thought of Nakia in that time. Though they had ended things again, amicably as Nakia's work was her priority, he should have felt something about it. He hadn't considered other options. Alone in his shower, he only thought of Barnes. Had he robbed himself of his own volition as well in this process?
"If he asks, I'm interested in seeing him," T'Challa said quietly. He started to walk away, feeling like that was a solid line to end this conversation with, but he stopped. "Shuri, you have nothing to apologize for. It's good that you are so protective. I was also being protective. We can both be right."
She nodded and smiled. "Go back to work, my king."
"Go back to work, my sister."
The rainy winter season was upon them when Shuri sent word that Barnes wanted to see T'Challa. He asked for a meeting at his home, which T'Challa understood. It was a lot to meet with the king that had spent several days trying to kill you and you were now bonded to. It would be only more intimidating to have that conversation in a palace.
Shuri had kept T'Challa updated, in vague broad terms, since their quiet reconciliation, so T'Challa knew that Ayo had set Barnes up with a small home on the outskirts of a Border village, not far from the lab.
He went alone, the morning cool and damp, with only a hint of beauty in the sunrise through the clouds. The mist of rain was cool against his face as he approached the hut. The door was open, so he knocked on it as he stepped through the threshold.
It was only two rooms, separated by a curtain that was pulled aside, revealing Barnes. His hair was longer than and his beard filled in. He wore jeans and a white t-shirt, with the left sleeve pinned tight against his shoulder. His feet were bare.
"Hi," Barnes said.
"Your door was open," T'Challa said, and then realized that was stupid and obvious. After all of this anticipation, he hadn't expected to be tongue tied. Maybe he should have expected that.
Barnes nodded. "I like the fresh air. I made coffee. You want some?"
"Yes—no—I..." T'Challa took a breath "I think I might be awake enough already."
"I'm nervous about this too," Barnes said, though his easy going demeanor pointed to the contrary. He poured himself a cup of coffee from a metal percolator and leaned against the counter, the mug curled in his hand. "You didn't have to do that, the... the soul thing."
The speech about not wanting to see anymore death from the situation bubbled up inside of him, but T'Challa knew it wasn't the right time for it. He could feel Barnes' understanding, and the truth that he believed it didn't need to be done.
"I wanted to," he said. "Your life is worth saving."
Barnes smiled down into his cup. He took a sip and then set it aside. He took a step toward T'Challa, and even though there were several feet between them, T'Challa could feel the heat radiating from Barnes' skin. "I don't know you. You're basically a stranger to me, and this... between us... I can't explain it."
"I could explain it to you," T'Challa said. "If you'd like that."
"It's such a forgein feeling," Barnes continued, as if T'Challa hadn't spoken, "this intense tie to someone I don't know. I've been so focused on freeing myself from what HYDRA did to me, I pushed it aside, but now that it's out of my head, I can't stop. I feel you and I trust you, but I don't know anything about you as a person. That's what I want to know. I want to know you and... we can figure out the rest from there. If that's something you want." He paused. "Your Majesty?"
T'Challa laughed and some of the tension in the room broke. "No, please. Call me T'Challa."
"Okay. You can call me Bucky."
"Bucky," T'Challa repeated, the word settling nicely in his mouth. His mind flashed to all of the other things that would feel nice in his mouth, and he pushed the thoughts aside as quickly as he could. It was a bit much this early in the morning.
Still, he reached his hand out. "Could I?"
Barnes—Bucky—took a few steps closer to him and brushed his fingers against T'Challa's palm. He shuddered. "It's nice, having just one other person with me."
T'Challa hesitated. "It could have been zero."
Bucky shook his head. "No, I... I remember when you did the thing. I remember... I was fading out. Maybe I would have made it, maybe I wouldn't have, but I felt it when you pressed that life into me. I've been smashed apart and reassembled so many times I've lost count, but that was the first time it ever felt like I was being made whole. Thank you."
T'Challa's heart nearly broke it was so full. He had thought about this moment for months: being this close, having Bucky's hand in his. His body had yearned for it, and now he couldn't even do any of the things he had considered for so long. Bucky was right. They didn't know each other. It had been so easy to forget when he felt so close. He was in the exact same place he had been when he saw Barnes last, talking to him through the glass. He hadn't moved, waiting for this moment.
"What now?" T'Challa asked.
"I think you should kiss me," Bucky replied. T'Challa must have looked surprised, because Bucky laughed. "This is a two way connection, you know. I've thought about it too."
T'Challa smiled and released Bucky's hand. He reached up and touched his palm to Bucky's cheek, the beard scratchy under his palm. He leaned in and pressed his mouth softly to Bucky's lips.
Bucky's arm snaked around T'Challa's waist and pulled him closer, so their bodies were flushed together. The kiss deepened, T'Challa losing himself in the scent of Bucky's hair, the brush of beard against his chin, and the weight of Bucky's hand on the small of his back until he pulled back, panting.
"Well," Bucky said, sounding equally out of breath, "that was worth waiting for."
T'Challa laughed, perhaps a bit too loudly. "Yes. It was what I was waiting for."
Bucky kissed him again, a chaste brushing of lips before he pulled away completely. He went back to his coffee and held the mug against his chest, fingers wrapped around the handle. "So, tell me something I don't know about you, T'Challa, King of Wakanda."
T'Challa relaxed. This, he was prepared for.